Illustration by Suneesh K.
You know the story where Birbal tells emperor Akbar that he can think about anything except mangoes. Of course, all that Akbar can think about is mangoes. In a similar white bear experiment, participants who were asked not to think of a white bear, couldn’t. It is proven that thought suppression gives you the opposite of the intended effect. Toxic positivity is an outcome of thought suppression that forces you to focus on ‘the bright side’ when in a difficult situation. It’s like telling yourself to think about anything but a fracture. Not only does it become the only thing you can think about, it’s also what prevents you from getting medical attention, thereby aggravating the problem.
You are better served by seeing a situation as it is and giving it your most authentic response. You don’t have a mental health issue if you are strolling down the river bank and are upset by corpses floating in it. You probably might if you spot the bodies and keep smiling and strolling. You don’t have a mental health concern if you are disturbed by the unprecedented death and destruction caused by the pandemic. You just need better coping strategies to deal with the environment. You are more likely to have a mental health concern if you’re not able to come to terms with its reality. As philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthi put it, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
However our societal training teaches us that life must have suffering in it, our rags to riches, garage to gazillionaire stories glorify this trope. Someone who refuses to put up with bad work conditions, bosses, or marriages and prioritises their mental health and happiness is not held up as a success story. Therefore, we are told that your virtue is in grinning and bearing it. Daughters are told not to come back from abusive marital homes, to keep up appearances. Independent research on suicide in India places it at 82 to 95 per 100,000 population, up to eightfold higher than the official national suicide rates.
Effective emotional regulation is a pressure valve for the body. When it’s working well, it releases pressure as needed. When it’s broken, the reading it shows is within normal limits, it looks just fine, and then one day the boiler explodes. Manipulating the expression of what we really feel is an essential survival strategy. For instance, if you work in customer service and a customer is being abusive, though you may feel equally angry, you respond calmly. This is your emotional regulation ability. When you do it some of the time, it can contribute to your well-being by making you adaptable. When you do it all of the time, it leads to suppression and increased unhappiness.
Psychological study after study has shown that thought suppression is detrimental. In a 1997 study, J. Gross and R. Levenson asked 180 people to watch films in groups. One group were asked to freely express what they felt, and the other to hide what they felt. Those who suppressed emotions had increased parasympathetic activation of the cardio vascular system. A 2010 study found that those with a greater socioeconomic and wealth creation status had less need to suppress their emotions because they had more power. You put on a face when you are forced to adapt to a situation, not when you are in a position to control it.
Spiritually, all of meditation’s work is to lead you to insight, to bear witness to reality. The Bhagavad Gita says ‘karmano hyapi bodhavyam bodhavyam ca vikarmanah akarmanasca bodhavyam...’ (Indeed, action should be known, forbidden action should be known, inaction should also be known… Chapter 4, verse 17). The Buddha called it ‘yata bhuta nana dassana’ – witnessing reality as it is, and not as you wish it to be.
The fallout of living in a delusion has tangible impact on the larger scale of community and economy. Thousands suffer due to a few who act in denial. Industrialists like Vijay Mallya, who threw a mega birthday bash even as his employees were denied salaries; or Subrata Roy who, even when questioned by SEBI remained ‘optimistic’ it would all blow over. Reading reality is an essential life skill.